Jean Davis is a wired senior. The 86-year-old came to the digital world 14 years ago when a son decided she should have a personal computer.
Now she not only surfs the Internet for several hours a day, she also helps teach classes for SeniorNet, a nonprofit that trains older adults around the country in computer skills.
"We didn’t even have television in the olden days," said Davis, who lives in Carmichael, Calif. "But now older people are getting on computers because their children and grandchildren want them online."
"We’re long past the threshold where it’s novel for older people to be online. More and more, it’s a necessity to stay connected in life," said Mark Beach, AARP California communications director.
The Pew Internet & American Life Project has found that slightly more than half of people age 65 and older use the Internet — and 43 percent of them regularly connect with family members and friends on social networking sites.
Those numbers drop significantly past age 75. Little more than a third of people in that age group are digitally connected, according to Pew.
The 26 million older adults who remain offline are not making the increasingly crucial transition to using technology as a lifestyle resource, said Tom Kamber, chief executive officer of Older Adults Technology Services, which teaches older New York residents to use the computer.
"As time passes, a smaller proportion of older adults is being left on the sidelines," he said. "Meanwhile, more and more core daily activities are online every year."
The list of routine online activities continues growing: Banking. Paying bills. Receiving receipts and discounts from retailers. Making purchases. Tracking health expenses and ordering medications. Staying in touch with the doctor. Confirming appointments. Making travel arrangements.
Researchers hope online connections also can help with one of the thorniest issues of old age: isolation and its resulting spiral of depression, mobility problems and chronic physical ailments.
It’s a problem made more difficult by the fact that older adults in huge numbers prefer to remain living independently, in their own homes, even when doing so slowly becomes unhealthy for them.
Although Pew figures show that only 40 percent of people 65 and older have access to high-speed Internet at home, aging experts see technology as a major potential resource to help seniors continue aging in place.
Videoconferencing via the Internet can connect them with medical providers and loved ones. Remote home health monitoring can track their blood pressure and record what — or whether — they’ve eaten.
More than that, older adults can reach out to others, even when they’re alone.
"It’s obvious that staying connected with loved ones and others really shapes your quality of life as you age," said AARP’s Beach. "The ability to stay connected to the world is especially important to people who are not as mobile."
Davis had never used a computer before she received one from her son 14 years ago. So she took a computer basics class through SeniorNet, and one class led to another and another.
Tim Bresnehan, a 70-year-old retiree who lives in East Sacramento, didn’t even know how to type when he bought an iPad two years ago. After breaking a femur in a bad spill off his bike, he decided during his recuperation that it was time he enter the online age.
"Having been born during World War II, something like this is astonishing," he said. "The first television set I saw was in 1950. The rapid transition of a lot of these things is amazing."